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NARVIK, Norway (VN) — Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) may be among the top favorites for the world championship road race in Virginia this September, with Edvald Boasson Hagen (MTN-Qhubeka) as a dangerous backup option, but Norway already has one rainbow jersey on the road: Kristoff’s teammate Sven Erik Bystrom, the reigning under-23 road champion.
What’s more, Bystrom is only one young rider hitting his stride in what is a huge period of growth for Norwegian cycling.
Sondre Holst Enger (IAM Cycling), Odd Christian Eiking and August Jensen (Joker), and Kristoffer Skjerping (Cannondale-Garmin) are just a few of the other top talents age 23 and younger coming up through the ranks. Not bad for a country of fewer than 6 million people competing for results against the larger traditional cycling powerhouses.
Why now? For one thing, Norway’s fast-rising young talents have big-time stars to emulate. It’s hard to imagine that Norwegian cycling would be riding so high without the success of Thor Hushovd in the past decade. The former world champion and two-time Tour de France green jersey winner will go down in history as a Norwegian legend for his powerful kick, but also as the precursor to the modern avalanche of talent riding into the pro peloton from the north.
“The reason why I started cycling was that Thor Hushovd was doing really well in the Tour de France and later on at the world championship and all the biggest races,” Bystrom told VeloNews before the final stage at the Arctic Race of Norway. “To have a role model and a big superstar in the sport is always important.”
Hushovd’s dominance started something special in Norway, and a pair of big stars followed in his wake. Boasson Hagen and Kristoff are the cycling stars of the present, representing the blossoming Norwegian cycling scene at the sport’s highest levels.
“We get so inspired by Edvald and Thor and Kristoff because they are really in the top in the world and that gives us motivation to also be in the top,” said Holst Enger, who signed with WorldTour squad IAM Cycling at the end of 2014 when he was just 20 years old.
“Now we are beginning to have many professional riders, and that’s a good thing for Norway, because then there can be [even] more, because the younger [riders] can look up to the older.”
Success at the top level has had a snowball effect, with young Norwegians driven to take up the sport now that the path has been cleared for them.
“Cycling is so popular right now in Norway. Everybody wants to start cycling and a lot of guys watch all this on TV. So it’s really exciting at the moment,” Bystrom said.
“You can see how big a superstar Kristoff is right now. Hopefully we younger riders can also be like this in some years.”
The explosion in popularity has also coincided with the birth of multiple stage races on Norwegian soil. Not only do young riders from Norway have stars to emulate; they also have big-time racing opportunities to grow and develop, and to show themselves among the sport’s top talents.
The Tour of Norway and Arctic Race of Norway — both 2.HC events on the Europe Tour — and the 2.1 Tour des Fjords all draw strong startlists. They provide young Norwegian talents, often riding for the wealth of Continental teams invited to the races, with plenty of chances to ride with WorldTour stars on home turf.
“Three big races … It’s a good thing for Norwegian cycling because many riders want to be on a Continental team so that they can do these big races and take the next step,” Holst Enger said. “That was a big step for me also, to do these three big races, because if you do really well there you can get to the next step as a professional.”
The trio of races also gives Norway a chance to broadcast live pictures of its burgeoning young talents, and its eye-catching natural beauty, to the world at large.
“It’s nice to get pictures of Norway and the racing so it gets out to more people,” Boasson Hagen told VeloNews a few moments after securing fourth place overall in the Arctic Race.
With stars of the present and up-and-comers aplenty, as well as the exposure that comes from showing high-level races to the world, the Norwegian cycling scene looks set to stay strong, and could grow even more so.
“I think now, all the pro teams look to Norway for cyclists,” Boasson Hagen said. “Before it was more the big cycling nations, and now they also look more to us. That helps for growing the sport.”
Success for Norway’s stars of the present seems to only stoke the fire even more. With Kristoff adding a second monument classic win to his palmares in this year’s Tour of Flanders, and with Norway’s worlds team eyeing Richmond for more glory this September, it doesn’t look like Norway’s upward momentum is slowing down any time soon.